Leopold lays out agenda

Executive to target environmental abuses and panhanding, push for schools funding

General Assembly

January 21, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

In a bold legislative agenda that encompasses local and statewide initiatives, County Executive John R. Leopold is seeking to expand the powers of jurisdictions to punish critical area violators, ban panhandling along Anne Arundel roads and boost the county's share of state school construction money.

During a meeting with the county's legislative delegation Friday in Annapolis, Leopold, a Republican, asked the 20 lawmakers to expand the statute of limitations on critical area violations from one to three years.

After his testimony, he told reporters that he might hire more permit inspectors to further crack down on land-use abuses along Anne Arundel's 530 miles of shoreline. His comment came at a time when the county is fighting to tear down two waterfront homes built without permits.

"The environment is on top of everybody's list right now," said Del. Mary Ann Love, a Glen Burnie Democrat who chairs the county's House delegation. "It is very, very crucial that we can save what we can."

Of the county's 75 land-use inspectors, six are assigned to environmental enforcement, said Betty Dixon, the county's director of inspections and permits. "More inspectors are always a welcome answer to the problems we face," she said.

The county executive also asked for state legislators to pass a law that would empower the county to reduce some impact fees levied on new homes, now ranging from $2,400 to $4,800, to promote affordable housing for teachers, police officers and firefighters.

Among other priorities Leopold set out Friday: reforming the selection process of the county's school board to allow for greater public participation; building on the $19.1 million in school construction funds that the county has already netted for the coming fiscal year; banning smoking at bars and restaurants; and making permanent a state program to help residents purify well water that is contaminated with radium.

Leopold came out strongly in support of a county panhandling ban, saying a recent law that prohibits minors from soliciting along roads leaves "99.5 percent of the problem of adults."

"I tell you that people of the county want us to deal with this," Leopold said.

Leopold addressed the lawmakers amid little fanfare - and no free food. His predecessor, Janet S. Owens, had held an annual breakfast to announce her legislative agenda. But Leopold, frugal since taking office last month, decided against spending thousands on such an event. He laid out his agenda in less than 20 minutes.

Nearly all of what Leopold had to say came as little surprise to the legislators. The former five-term state delegate has met quietly with groups of lawmakers over the past few weeks to lay out his agenda.

"You can't think of getting anything done unless you have collaboration and communication," Leopold said.

State aid will be crucial as the county faces declining real-estate tax revenues alongside growing budget demands to pay for growing retiree health care costs and for 10 union contracts that come up for negotiation this year. Also, an expansion at Fort Meade bringing 20,000 jobs will force the county to spend many millions to upgrade roads and build schools at a time when the county faces a large backlog of infrastructure projects.

At the same time, the military-related growth is spawning billions of dollars in development - along with tax revenue and fees to address those issues.

"This is an exciting time," Leopold said. "It is also a very critical time."

In that vein, Leopold reaffirmed his support for a constitutional "firewall" to protect the state's transportation trust fund and ensure that those dollars are allocated for road projects, such as the overhauls of Route 175 in Odenton and Route 3 in Crofton.

Leopold noted that the administration of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. transferred $538 million from that fund to balance the state budget. He said it was imperative to return money borrowed from the transportation fund as well as from the Waterway Improvement Fund and Program Open Space.

He commended Gov. Martin O'Malley for agreeing to fully fund the open-space initiatives this year, but he noted that about $800 million has been pulled from that dedicated fund over the past 35 years.

Leopold said O'Malley's budget funds five of 19 dredging projects in the county and that he will ask the governor for between $2 million and $3 million more.

Last year, the General Assembly directed $373 million in operating and capital funds to Anne Arundel County, a nearly $50 million increase over 2005. Much of the extra money was directed to open-space programs, school construction and road improvements.

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